The simple question of “what is the best horse vacation?” is far too vague and subjective. If we can more precisely define the parameters of the term “best”, then we can perhaps find an accurate answer to the question. By identifying the needs of a vacationer in terms of venue location, challenge level, riding discipline, group size, etc. then we can instead search for a “best match”. More precisely identifying the riding needs of a group, allows an accurate match to be selected from the available equestrian vacation options.
The subjective term of “best” also implies that there is only one set of objective qualifiers to be imposed onto all riding disciplines, skills, challenge levels, cultures and riding terrains. Is the best equestrian holiday for a solo traveling dressage champion going to also be the best holiday for a family of mixed ages, divergent riding interests, and varying riding skills? The answer is an obvious “NO”.
So how does one decide which riding venue, equestrian holiday, or dude ranch experience is best for a particular group? From my perspective as a tenured service provider in the dude ranching industry, I offer the following tips for selecting a “best match” for your horse riding vacation.
1.Safety must be the prime directive. The best riding holiday will match the physical conditioning and skills of the rider to the horse and to the challenges on the trail. A safe ride must be limited by what is within acceptable levels of risk for the least capable rider in a group. A party composed entirely of seasoned and skilled adult riders will appropriately fit the program of a ranch that specializes in faster gates and more challenging riding terrains. A mixed ability group might best be served in choosing a location that emphasizes the “ground work” components of riding. A mixed ability group should also locate a riding vacation that has options for varying trail difficulties, and has instructional components as a main theme of their riding program. The least capable rider in a group should limit the risk exposure to the whole group on any ride.
In addition, the ranch or riding venue should have a strong safety program in place. The wranglers should be certified in horse safety programs and be CPR and first aid trained. The trails should be groomed, known and named by the staff, and hazard free. The tack and equipment must be properly maintained, and the horses should be proven, stable and in good health. Wrangling staff should also carry radios, first aid equipment, and any other equipment needed to guarantee protection and safety of the guest riders. Finally, at a minimum riding helmets should be worn on all adventure rides and ideally on every ride.
The safety of the riding public cannot be fully guaranteed in an activity that is dependent on sentient animals that have their own free will to act. Safety also cannot be completely guaranteed in natural settings that are not fully in our control. That being said, proper attention should be given to the components of any ride that reside in our sphere of influence and can keep risk exposures at an acceptable level for the vacationing horse rider.
So, how does one exercise due diligence when researching the safety program and history of a potential riding venue? It might be wise to start by first making a phone call to the riding venue to have a candid conversation on the topic. Enquire about the tenure of the staff. Ask about which horse safety programs are in place. Determine if the facility has been vetted by the Dude Ranchers Association. Is the facility a vetted member of any other riding associations? Can the ranch or riding center offer references? Scour the public review sites such as Tripadvisor, yelp and the BBB. Of course, word of mouth might also be a relevant resource if you happen to know previous clients of a facility.
2. Are horse rides the sole purpose of your vacation? Many dude ranches and guest ranches fill the day with both morning and afternoon rides. Working ranches that are still running cattle will also place visiting guests in the saddle during a cowboy’s regular work day. Consecutive days of extended saddle time are great for hard core riding enthusiasts, but few equestrian vacationers can survive an authentic cowboy’s grueling saddle day. One alternative to a saddle sore vacation is to seek a mixed activity itinerary that limits horse riding to just a piece of your day.
A mixed activity riding itinerary will also address the needs of families and groups with varying equestrian interests. Consider ranches that can offer white water rafting, shooting sports, fishing, relaxing spa services, line dancing and other exciting and edifying events. These mixed activity dude ranches and riding venues can keep a mixed interest group more fully engaged and satisfied.
3. The “nose to tail” conundrum. The geography of a ranch location will largely determine the style of riding. Ranches that are geographically placed in spacious open riding terrain often tout a superior riding experience by keeping horses abreast to each other while disparaging single file “nose to tail” riding. Conversely, mountain trail riders on single track trails tout the intimate forested settings and varying trail challenges found only in more vertical terrains and disparage riding the same hot exposed pasture repetitively. Rather than weighing so heavily on the geometry of horses in a riding group, consider all of the parameters of a riding vacation. Some more appropriate questions to ask about the style and flavor of riding offered at a ranch or equestrian center might be:
- How many different trail rides are offered without having to duplicate a trail? If you are riding twice a day for a week-long itinerary, how often will you duplicate the same trail?
- Is there a shuttle required to reach the trail-head? If so, how long are the drives? A three hour round trip truck drive on a dirt road with a following stock trailer is a significant cost in the return on investment for your riding vacation time.
- Will I ride through natural trail obstacles such as water crossings, variable terrains and grade changes? Are we riding under cover of a shaded tree canopy? Conversely, are the trails primarily on dusty gravel roads? Are trails in direct exposure to excessive sun in the heat of the day?
- What is the solitude factor of the riding? Are intruding highways and developments in sight? Can you ride for extended periods in solitude to disconnect from the visual and auditory pollution of a developed world?
- Are “adventure rides” with faster gates available? What is the screening process for joining those rides? What will the less capable riders in your group do during your adventure ride?
- Are trails groomed and maintained to remove hazards? If so, who is responsible for the maintenance?
- Are riding lessons and arena riding challenges such as pole bending and barrel racing available? Is there additional cost for riding lessons? Is the arena groomed and covered or is it exposed to the elements of weather?
- What is the staff to client ratio on the trail? What are the typical and maximum group sizes on any offered trail rides?
There are obviously many more factors to consider besides the question of whether the rides are on single-track “Man From Snowy River” trails or if you are one of the “Three Amigos” riding three abreast into a desert sunset.
4. Cuisine, Cottages, Courtesy, and Culture – All of the supporting features of a riding vacation, the food, housing, and hospitality, should combine to create a cherished riding memory. Can a prospective riding venue meet your culinary expectations or diet restrictions? What are the housing options for your visit? Do the facility hosts and managers have negative reviews complaining of uncaring or abusive attitudes? Most of these points can be examined with the enabling support of third party review sites and follow-up communications with the management of prospective sites.
5. It’s in your hands. The underlying point here is that some measure of effort and due diligence in research is required in order to find the best match for your group’s vacation expectations. “What is the best riding vacation?” is only answerable by rephrasing the question to ask “Which riding vacation best matches our group needs and circumstances?” An analysis of your group’s particular needs and expectations might first be in order prior to initiating a review of prospective sites.
Meeting the expectations of your group’s riding holiday will also presume that you are presenting an honest and accurate evaluation of your group’s riding capacities. One of the most challenging pieces of managing a horse riding venue or outfitting another risk inherent adventure sport is visiting guests who overstate their capacities and pressure the host to make exceptions. The last thing you want to do is attempt to force the hand of trail ride leaders beyond their assessments of proper and prudent risk management. Riding safety should ultimately be the prime directive for both the hosting service provider and a partnering riding guest. With an honest assessment of your vacationing group, and with due diligence in your review of the riding options you will most certainly find one of several “best matches” for your horse riding vacation.
See you on the trails, Doug